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Leprosy Threatens Red Squirrels in UK

A squirrel native to Britain that was already in trouble now needs help with another threat.

A squirrel native to Britain that was already in trouble now needs help with another threat: leprosy.

The disease results in swelling in the animal's snout, feet and ears, as well as hair loss, and wildlife officials in the United Kingdom are launching a study to figure out how it is being transmitted, according to the Daily Mail.

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The major problem for the ruddy creatures is that their historic turf has been overrun by grey squirrels introduced from the United States. There are just an estimated 140,000 red squirrels left in the U.K., compared to some 2.5 million grey squirrels, according to England's forestry commission.

Leprosy was first discovered in the U.K.'s red squirrels in Scotland in 2014, although experts think it has been around for a long time – perhaps hundreds of years - and simply gone undiagnosed.

According to Dorset Wildlife Trust, which will participate in the study, the leprosy bacteria is "widespread" among the squirrels but "neglible" in terms of risk to humans. Scientists with the organization aren't sure yet how the disease is being transmitted among the squirrels.

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Ground zero for the leprosy study will be Brownsea Island, a site thought to be a hotbed for the disease and one that will enable the scientists to study it in a contained setting.

Researches from the University of Edinburgh, alongside local wildlife managers from Brownsea Island, will conduct the study using humane traps. They'll capture the animals long enough for blood tests and basic health exams to be administered, before returning them to the wild.

Happy vernal equinox! The arrival of spring brings warmer weather, the greening of trees, and the blooming of flowers. It puts us in mind of animals, too -- the ones that have been off taking long naps and are now ready to spring forward. Nature's clock being imperfect, some might technically emerge before spring, but we're not worried about splitting hairs. What matters is, when the weather warms up, these critters are ready for what's next. First up, raccoons. Depending on the climate where they live, many raccoons will spend winter months hiding out in tree or log hollows, where they fall into a deep sleep. They'll eat as much as they can before they check out, as they lose up to half their weight by the time warmer weather arrives.

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Groundhogs will hibernate no matter the temperature of its surroundings or the state of the food supply. They dig their burrows beneath the frost line, making sure to fatten up as much as possible before checking in for as long as five to six months between October and March or April.

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Box turtles in colder regions prep for winter by digging chambers well below ground and waiting it out for warmer days.

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Not all hedgehogs hibernate -- it will depend on the temperature where they live and the food supply -- but many will burrow into their nests and then dial their body temperature way down for winter. They're not really asleep so much as in a state of torpor, living off their fat stores from late fall to early spring.

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Ladybugs will gobble up lots of pollen and aphids, find a place to wait out the winter -- in clumps together on a tree, under rocks, or in buildings, for example -- and go into a dormant state called diapause until the mercury heats up.

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Some species of snail will cover themselves in mucus to keep from drying out, while they hibernate through colder months.

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Bats have been known to take a hibernation breather for up to six months in a cave.

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While male and worker bumblebees die off at the end of summer, the queen bee, true to her station, lives on -- hibernating underground for about six months. Come warmer weather, she'll pop up from her hidey hole and look for a good spot for the summer nest.

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Some rattlesnake species will switch off the lights and hibernate in the winter. Up to 1,000 snakes can end up sharing underground hibernating dens. They'll even share their winter homes with animals such as turtles, small mammals, and other species of snake.

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The black bear is an expert hibernator that can fine-tune its metabolism to get through the winter. It can go months without eating, drinking, peeing or pooping. Come October or November, it heads for a den in a tree hollow or cave, or beneath rocks or logs. Its heart rate will slow to about 8 beats per minute. Some three to five months later, it will emerge.

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